Raleigh hosts the Summit for High Speed Rail on the East Coast on Oct. 22, when federal and state transportation officials, railroad company executives, and a few members of Congress will discuss how to extend existing high-speed passenger service between Boston and Washington to major cities in the Southeast. A big issue: money. Estimated costs are $7 million a mile; from Charlotte to Washington, D.C., it would cost about $3.2 billion. Pat Simmons, director of the N.C. Department of Transportation's rail division, talks about the project's feasibility.
Is Raleigh strategically important on this topic?
Yes. North Carolina is a mid-Atlantic state and Raleigh is a state capital. [In] the planning and development of higher-speed systems in this part of the country, we're looking to connect the state capitals.
What will this high-speed service look like, and when can we expect to ride it?
We are focused not on speed per se, but on mobility for our citizens. So as we make improvements to the railroads, we will achieve top speeds of around 90 mph between Raleigh and Charlotte [up from 79 mph today]. From Raleigh to Richmond, we'll achieve 110; drop back to 90 as we connect into Washington; then in the Northeast Corridor, they achieve top speeds of up to 150.
How will that compare with flying to Washington? Will a train get me there faster?
You'll get there in an equal amount of time, but an advantage is, you will arrive center-city. Rail won't compete directly with aviation, but rail will have an advantage for trips of 300 to 500 miles or less.
One of your colleagues talked about a crisis in passenger and freight transportation? What's the crisis?
North Carolina by the year 2030 is going to add another 4.5 million citizens. Across the southeastern states, we see similar [growth]. We need additional growth in infrastructure. But there is a funding crisis: The Congress—the way we fund surface transportation in this country—essentially goes into the red next year. We've got growth, but we don't have a way to pay for the transportation network [we need].
And the target date?
We've been working with the Congress, and in fact there's active legislation being considered this year. North Carolina's one of the few states that's done the advance planning and engineering that will enable us to make those kinds of investments quickly once we have a federal funding partner.
What about freight conflicts? What's the answer to running passenger service efficiently in corridors that are controlled by the freight carriers?
Investments in infrastructure. We need more capacity ... more tracks within the railroad rights of way. Poor on-time service [is] one of the issues we have to solve, not just for passenger but for freight as well. But frankly, it's like our highway network; we're very congested. One advantage on the rail system is that, generally speaking, the right-of-way exists to add additional tracks.
If this summit goes well, what effect will it have on the debate about rail service?
We hope it gives a lift to our elected officials as they consider funding options. There is legislation now before the Congress. Sen. [Richard] Burr is a primary sponsor; we hope Sen. [Elizabeth] Dole will also support it when it comes to the Senate floor. We need to develop the partnerships to make the investments—partnerships with the railroads, with adjoining states, and with Congress.
The Oct. 22 summit is 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St. Registration: $150. More information: www.sehsr.org.